Art and the “genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it”

"A Bigger Splash" by David Hockney
“A Bigger Splash” by David Hockney

A lovely, brief essay from Alain de Botton for Tate Etc. on how art can be presented to connect more with our everyday lives, and not be concerned only with a piece’s heritage.

Without necessarily meaning to, museums send out subtle cues about what the ‘right’ thing to do inside them is. This set of norms is chiefly communicated by the captions which accompany objects and which throw the emphasis on a particular set of concerns: the name of the artist, the school to which they belonged, the influences upon them, the material of which the art object is made and their place within the museum’s internal cataloguing system. In other words, the captions invite their readers to take their first steps in adopting some of the concerns of the curatorial and academic establishments that, behind the scenes, look after and interpret works in museums.

I am interested in re-framing works of art so as to draw attention to their therapeutic aspects.

I enjoyed de Botton’s take on the role of arts in our everyday lives:

No less than music or literature, the visual arts have a role to play in keeping us more or less sane and in restoring us to a measure of serenity in an often frenetic and disappointing world… It lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of middle-age, our frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved spouses. Art can do the opposite of glamourising the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.

Housing First: homes for homeless people

Image: -macjsp on flickr
Image: -macjasp on flickr

Via a slightly breathless article in the Washington Post, I came across a great approach to homelessness: Housing First:

A model so simple children could grasp it, so cost-effective fiscal hawks loved it, so socially progressive liberals praised it… Give homes for the homeless

There’s a terrific briefing from Shelter on what Housing First is (pdf); it’s key components are as follows:

  • Immediate (or relatively immediate), permanent accommodation is provided to service users directly from the streets, without the requirement of assessed housing readiness
  • No preconditions of treatment access or engagement are made (housing first, not treatment first)
  • Comprehensive support services are offered and brought to the service user
  • A harm-reduction approach is taken to dependency issues and abstinence is not required. However, the support agency must be prepared to support residents’ commitments to recovery
  • Support can ‘float away’ or return as needs arise and the housing is maintained even if the resident leaves the programme, for example through imprisonment or hospital admission.

In the US, a four-year study found that the Housing First approach led to 88% housing retention rate, compared to a 47% retention rate for treatment first models. A shorter UK study of nine housing services (pdf) has found a range of excellent outcomes, too, including housing retention, improved mental and physical health, some reductions in drug and alcohol use, some positive evidence of social integration, and some reductions in anti-social behaviour.

It’s interesting to me the parallels between the housing first model (get people a house, then support them) and the Individual Placement & Support employment model for people with mental health problems (get people a job, then support them).

This is intriguing stuff, and I’ll be keeping a lookout for more on this.

Prescriptions for Labour’s pain

Let’s be absolutely clear: the platform for change put before Britain over the last few years has been rejected… Labour’s first attempt at a post-new-Labour modernisation has sadly fallen short… A leadership campaign is already upon us. This is not simply a choice of personality; it is a choice of programme.

So writes Anthony Painter in an excellent column on social justice in changing times and in which he outlines an excellent perspective on what Labour’s future programme might be

Anthony’s isn’t the only prescription for what such a programme might be. Below are other perspectives it’s worth being aware of (and which I record here partly for future reference, and will add to when further key contributions are made).

Tony Blair:

The centre ground is as much a state of mind as a set of policies. It means that we appreciate that in today’s world many of the solutions will cross traditional boundaries of left and right… The centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future. The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future. We win when we understand the way the world is changing and make sense of how those changes can be shaped for the good of the people. We have to be the policy innovators, those seeking new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to overcome… This requires real thinking with an open mind, not an attempt to find our way back to hallowed ground which represents a dead end.

Chuka Umunna:

We must stop looking to the past and focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future. Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden. That means offering competence, optimism not fatalism, an end to machine politics, an economic credo that is both pro-worker and pro-business and, most of all, a politics that starts with what unites us as a country rather than what divides us. Only then will we be able to build the fairer, more equal, democratic and sustainable society that led us to join our party in the first place.

Stella Creasy:

Our economic credibility is the core thread that allows us to show how progressive politics require not protecting the status quo but provoking change for the benefit of all… Rooted in the communities we serve, our cause must be renewed and reaffirmed for a generation that does not want to be told what to do but to shape its own future – and to support not just an opposition but an alternative to narrow Conservatism.

Tristram Hunt:

We in the Labour party now face a triple bind: the rise of nationalism in Scotland; the loss of confidence in middle England; and a lack of trust in large parts of traditionally Labour communities. Rebuilding an electoral coalition which has fragmented towards the SNP, Ukip and the Tories can never be adequately addressed by a series of tailored policy solutions. It is much more a question of instinct, message, trust and sentiment.

And, as a companion piece of all of those above, Ian Leslie’s 10 delusions about the Labour defeat to watch out for is excellent.

Fascinating insight into social worker views

A fascinating insight into the views of social workers on key issues in social care from Professor Eileen Munro was published last week.

It’s a short and accessible report that’s easy to read in full; here are a couple of points that stood out to me:

  • 72% of social work practitioners agreed that performance targets took priority over time with service users. This tension created personal stress in the same proportion of practitioners.
  • Some 64% of social work practitioners recognise that cuts to managerial posts affected their ability to do their job; at the same time, 63% of practitioners felt senior managers don’t understand the realities of frontline social work. There is a disjuncture between these two findings, which suggests to me the need for relationship building within social work organisations
  • 66% of practitioners felt their caseloads had ‘slightly’ or ‘significantly’ increased in the last 12 months. That means a third felt caseloads hadn’t increased, as well.

This is not the sort of environment in which good social work can readily take place.

(Thanks Louise D for the original link.)

Disabled people and voting: it’s about much more than access

Polling fenceThere are always a number of campaigns around this time on ensuring voting is accessible for all disabled people. Such campaigns are usually accompanied by statistics about the physical inaccessibility of polling stations or the fact party manifestos are rarely produced in Easy Read formats.

This is all right and proper: it’s the bare minimum to ensure the process of voting is accessible for disabled people, and the work of organisations in drawing attention to this is valuable.

For me, though, there’s a much wider point that receives relatively little attention: the idea of disabled people as equal citizens and a key constituency in the electorate whose thoughts and preferences are responded to and catered for by politics and policy.

If disabled people[1] were thought of in this way, we would know much more comprehensively than we do answers to questions such as:

  • How many disabled people vote?
  • What are the political preferences of disabled people?
  • What do disabled people consider to be key election issues?

What’s more, we, the media and political parties would have polling data from Ipsos-Mori, YouGov etc. and all sorts of focus group information specific to what disabled people think and want.

Answers to such questions and such information would help give everyone, but especially political parties and the media, a better understanding of the place – and so power – of disabled people within the electorate[2].

Equivalent precedents exist: we have the Suffragettes and Operation Black Vote that have aimed to secure the political representation and enfranchisement of women and people from BME backgrounds. When it comes to the economy, we have the “Pink Pound” and we now (occasionally) talk about “the disabled pound”.

But, to a large extent, the equal citizenship of disabled people just isn’t on the agenda. If it were, no government would act in such a reckless fashion as the coalition has when it comes to things like the changes to Disability Living Allowance, the Bedroom Tax, employment support for disabled people and the continued poor performance of Access to Work, abolishing the Independent Living Fund, failure after failure following Winterbourne View and so on. Because disabled people aren’t thought of equally as citizens, though, governments can act with relative impunity when it comes to issues of direct relevance to disabled people.

As I’ve argued before, a positive part of any future disability rights agenda must be one which seeks to understand, further and secure the place of disabled people as equal citizens, and so an equal part of the electorate and with it an equal role within democracy.

Disabled people and voting is about much, much more than access.


[1] – I fully recognise it’s a nonsense to take about ‘disabled people’ as if this represents any sort of homogenous block. To keep this post relatively uncomplicated I’m just making a general point here

[2] – There are a couple of organisations who have recently started to capture the policy interests of disabled people; see, for example, the tremendous work of the Learning Disability Alliance and a survey carried out by Papworth Trust

Links and reading on (1) achieving change, and (2) organising work

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about different ways of doing stuff. By ‘stuff’ I mainly mean (1) ways in which change is achieved, and (2) ways in which work is organised.

I thought it might be useful to put the most influential things I’ve been reading in one place – partly for my own reference, and partly for others to have a look at the source information if they so wish – so that’s what I’ve done below. It’s arranged into two lists (achieving change, organising work) and I’ll update it as and when.

Achieving change

Organising work

“We are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics”

I recently pointed to an excellent review by Alex Tabarrok of Joseph Heath’s current book, Enlightenment 2.0: “It doesn’t pay to be informed about politics”.

Heath has written a long ‘response’ which actually elucidates much more of his arguments in the book, and so is worth reading in itself. Take this:

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing. (That’s actually why I spend my time teaching in a public policy program, training future civil servants. The quality of public administration is far more important than most political theory would leads us to think.)

And, for completeness, Tabarrok has added a response to Heath’s response to Tabarrok’s review of Heath’s book, which itself is worth reading:

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

Finally, Heath’s one-minute history of conservative anti-rationalism (pdf) is brilliant. For example:

Who doesn’t like common sense? And yet it is also quite apt at describing the most important unifying idea in contemporary conservatism. If the plan that you’re proposing needs to be explained, then it’s not common sense. If it doesn’t sound right, then it’s not common sense.